A few months ago, I was with an organization that was having a series of quality issues, and leadership discussions reflected long-standing concerns that the supervisors were not following up with how they train team members.  Randy, the head of manufacturing, decided to send his front-line leaders to a local leadership training course in hopes that it would prevent issues like the quality problem.  He got positive feedback on the training from the attendees which he interpreted as proof the training would strengthen their leadership skills.  Not surprisingly, 6 months after the training, Randy is frustrated that the quality issues remained unchanged.

In reflecting upon the success of the training, Randy discovers the following:

  • The supervisors sent to the leadership training were not aware of the impetus that created the need for training, specifically the quality issues.
  • The training overview contained minimal information about what the training included. In actuality, the sessions were an overview of leadership to create awareness of what people need to learn how to do.
  • The presenter was entertaining and fun to listen to but none of this correlated to skill-building that could be applied to the workplace.

This situation reflects the common misconception that training is a fix to a problem by itself and that because people have attended training, they have learned something.

Over the last decade, I have focused much of my time on how people learn, especially leadership skills.  Following are Seven Key Learnings that you might find helpful:

  1. Learning requires repetitive practice. While this is a commonly understood principle, consider whether the training being provided has sufficient practice after the initial introduction to the skill. Rarely does practicing one or two times translate into a demonstrated ability.
    Tip: Make sure that coaching is available after the training to assist people in building the skill over time.
  1. People learn what they teach. It’s been almost shocking to see how little people learn when processing information for the first time.  Having developed workshops that were even somewhat effective in a quality learning experience, I’ve seen that much of it dissipates within days if not hours.  For example, participants may say, “That was great, I got a lot out of it.”  However, this does not mean they learned anything that is sustainable. Critical leadership skills may be better developed if the leaders do the teaching versus just being the students of it.  They will often describe: “I didn’t really learn this until I had to prepare to teach.  This is when I actually learned it.”
    Tip:  Look for opportunities where leaders would benefit from conducting the training, either as stand-up trainers or informally supporting the training efforts.
  1. People learn incrementally. The more I observed how people build skills, I realized some training is too big of a jump from not having the skill to teaching too many concepts at once.  Learners learn better if we build concepts one at a time in relatively small increments and then layer them.
    For instance, one of the coaching skills we found was a critical foundation was open questions vs closed questions.  This by no means is a coaching style of leadership but does show that we need to work on things one step at a time.
    Tip:  If you have critical skills that people are struggling to learn, consider how to break them down into incremental steps.
  1. People learn through stories. When we first began training, our learning specialists suggested that we use stories to help people apply key concepts.  Why?  People are more comfortable grasping a concept related to some other person and have less resistance to considering how to solve problems.  Stories also provide a safe place to explore things being done right or wrong without taking any of it personally.
    Tip:  Next time you have a situation you want a team to learn from, consider turning the lesson into a story about some other organization.  From there, let the team figure out what they think the organization should do and they’ll know how to apply lessons to themselves.
  1. People learn from what is done right and wrong. Think of examples of what you have learned when you understood correct versus incorrect answers or behaviors.  We have found that it is just as important to explain the right way to do things and include a comparison to the wrong way.  For example, if we teach people the proper way to provide positive recognition, it has been just as helpful to have participants experience poorly delivered recognition.  In the comparison, they have a better grasp of the target behavior.
    Tip:  Review key trainings to see if key behaviors have included comparisons of correct versus incorrect approaches.
  1. People need encouragement to learn. Continuous improvement typically involves a transformation of leadership skills.  While this challenge isn’t new, many organizations have struggled to assist leaders in this type of style change. One reason that leaders fail to make the change is that they become discouraged when new behaviors don’t stick.  What really seems to help is keeping up the encouragement to keep trying or not give up.  Whether someone encourages themselves or gets support from others around them, this is an essential ingredient of growth.
    Tip:  Make a conscious attempt to reinforce encouraging self-talk and community support to develop new skills.  Even trainers need to be aware of their role of creating safety to learn and when they are not assisting in building new skills.
  1. Learners often need to process information in multiple ways to fully grasp materials. I used to believe some people learn what they hear, what they read, and even others by what they experience.  Early research we found revealed this approach to learning actually depended on the topic.  We have found something as dynamic as new leadership behaviors have been best supported by a variety of learning approaches (e.g., personal reflection, small group discussions, reading materials, and certainly experiences that reinforce the right and wrong behaviors).
    Tip:  Consider whether the approach to learning is dynamic enough for learners to have a full comprehension of the topic.  For example, safety behaviors that are not well entrenched with content delivery or experiential practice.

If you would like to learn more about this, you can arrange a call with me.  In addition, a number of these lessons are shared in depth in my new book, Let Go to Lead.  What have been your experiences with how people learn?  What have you noticed has worked and not worked?


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